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Law students spend their entire first year panicking in terror over how their contracts, torts and civil procedure exams will fare. But once the first two semesters finally end, the “One L’s,” regardless of their specific grades, wise up over the realities of getting hired in today’s legal market.
Unlike when I went to law school, today’s students have numerous blogs, message boards and gossip sites at their disposal. Many law blogs are carefully edited and managed to provide soon-to-be lawyers a place to track their favorite offices and find out the goods about the realities of working as a first year associate well into the midnight hours. But some Web sites are designed around the users. The content of AutoAdmit.com, billed on its homepage as “The most prestigious law school discussion board in the world,” is almost entirely at the mercy of its bloggers.
Every day, dozens — and maybe hundreds — of law students (or lawyers posing as law students) moan and groan about politics, law school classes, bar exam results, but mostly over their chances of landing that juicy, lucrative six figure job a the end of the rainbow. The big firms are used to criticism, but what about individual students? What happens when a blogger unfairly rants about another individual? Is there a legal recourse?
It was reported earlier this year how two female Yale Law School students were subjected to negative, possibly defamatory, comments written by other bloggers on AutoAdmit.com. These false allegations included that one or more of them had received low LSAT scores, bribed their way into law school, engaged in lesbian affairs and sexual misconduct.
One law student claimed she lost job offers because of the unexpected Internet activity. After the story broke on broadcast news about the Yale students, several high profile papers picked up the story and exposed more allegations.
The bad publicity even lead to Anthony Ciolli, one of the site’s administrators and a third-year student at the University of Pennsylvania, to resign. Ciolli lost his job offer from the firm of Edwards Angell Palmer & Dodge — and the woes don’t stop there. This past June, the Yale students filed a lawsuit against Ciolli and other anonymous posters fromAutoAdmit.com in the District Court of Connecticut (Doe v. Violin), alleging that their “character, intelligence, appearance and sexual lives have been thoroughly trashed by the defendants.”
These incidents reflect a critical issue in Internet law: how much free expression can we tolerate on the Internet? The claim involves such issues as defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, infliction of emotional distress, privacy, misappropriation of name or likeness, and violation of copyright. It’s unlikely that the Yale students will even be able to get the Web site to reveal the names of the anonymous bloggers, but this case could have big consequences over the future of free speech on the Internet.
“So this is the 21st century? Where courts award punitive damages for offensive words and pictures?” said Professor Ann Althouse on Abovethelaw.com. “Isn't 'the scummiest kind of sexually offensive tripe' exactly what we always used to say people had to put up with in a free country? Man, that was so 20th century!”
In the latest update to the case, Ciolli was dropped as a defendant from the students’ complaint, but the 39 anonymous bloggers were not, sporting names like “Cheese Eating Surrender Monkey” and “kibitzer.”
Was it fair for Ciolli to be let off the hook? Under current law, the answer is yes. Let me explain: Ciolli didn’t write those comments himself. He only administered to the site at large. The Communications Decency Act of 1996 was designed to provide general immunity to web service providers and publishers over these kinds of charges, providing they take reasonable steps to take down these kinds of comments later on.
“Prior to being named in the suit, I fully sympathized with the plaintiffs,” Ciolli wrote on a law blog. “Now that they seem to have found a superior moral, logical and ethical compass, I sympathize with them again. What happened to them was wrong, and those who mistreated them should be held responsible for their actions.”
My take: This speech is not protected by the first amendment because it’s defamation and threatening (some of the writers threaten rape and sodomy). And others wrote a letter to the law school and employers slandering the “Jane Doe” saying that her father was a felon and that she bribed her way in to Yale Law School. Since those statements both turned out to be lies, they are not protected as opinion by the first amendment.
These two law students, who were living their dream, are now in the middle of a nightmare because of these postings. With promising careers ahead of them, they’re now having a hard time finding a job, in psychotherapy and one of the ladies dropped out for the semester. These bloggers need to take responsibility for their words. They should not be able to hide behind pseudonyms … or computer screens.
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Lis Wiehl joined FOX News Channel as a legal analyst in October 2001. To read the rest of Lis's bio, click here.